Two Klamath River Agreements Signed to Benefit Farmers and Fish
It’s not every day that the governors of Oregon and California, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the head of a major power company, and representatives of multiple tribes all gather at the mouth of a river. But April 6th was an historic day for the Klamath River.
Two agreements signed Wednesday morning mean four privately owned dams are now on track to be removed from the Klamath. It’s described as the largest river restoration project in the country. Earth fix reporter Jes Burns was there for the signing. And spoke with KLCC's Angela Kellner.
Question: Can you break down the basics of the two agreements?
The first agreement - the one that’s getting the most attention – basically creates a united front going into the long federal regulatory process of removing four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – three in California and one in Southern Oregon. It makes some guarantees to the dam owner, the utility PacifiCorp, limiting what they could be stuck paying out-of-pocket through the process. With these financial safeguards for the utility in place, they say it becomes more cost effective to just remove the dams. And removing the dams will open up 400 miles of new habitat for salmon in the Klamath - a major step for recovery.
The second agreement is essentially for the Farmers in the Basin – what it does is shield them from costs associated with restoring salmon runs once the dams come out – things like installing fish screening. It also commits all of the groups that sign on to the agreement to support congressional efforts by Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to secure lower-cost power for the farmers – pumping water for irrigation is extremely electricity dependent and the irrigators want help paying to do it.
Q: Why is water and fish in the Klamath Basin so important - what got us to this point?
A: Well, basically, there’s not enough water in the Klamath to go around. There is a lot of agriculture in the basin, some of it has been around for more than a century. And in low water years – like the drought we’ve been in lately – when farmers take the water they’re allotted, there’s not enough left over for fish.
The Klamath has historically been a major salmon river on the west coast. And the conflict really came to a head back in 2002 when there was a massive salmon die-off – from disease caused by a lack of water in the river. As you may imagine, tribes along the Klamath who depend on the salmon for food -- and for cultural and religious reasons -- were devastated. So were commercial fishermen.
The game changer came a few years back when a court decided the Klamath Tribes in Oregon had senior water rights – older than even the oldest right a farmer could claim to the water. That might sound wonky. But it means suddenly the tribes had the power to cut off other water to farmers so they could make sure there was enough for the fish – and suddenly all the players in the basin had a reason to come to the negotiating table.
They negotiated the Klamath Agreements. But those fell apart at the end of last year, because Congress didn’t authorize them.
Q: When it comes to the dams, are they definitely coming down?
To be clear, this deal doesn’t equal dam removal. Its federal energy regulators that have the authority to allow the dams to be removed. And that’s a process that will likely take several years.
Here’s what Interior Secretary Sally Jewell had to say on this:
Jewell: “There’s a tremendous amount of science that has been promulgated around the Klamath and the dam removal there. And you've got an economic situation where it is not economic for PacifiCorp to go forward and relicense these dams and do the improvements that would be necessary under the current process. So all of those things come together to give me good confidence that this is a legitimate path forward. The decision will rest with FERC, but we will be weighing in in a powerful way.”
So the interior department thinks it will be difficult for FERC to say no to removing these dams with so many key groups signed on an agreement calling for them to come down. But I’m certain that federal regulators will be hearing quite a bit from people who are opposed to dam removal - so that will all have to be weighed.
Q: Are there any issues that remain outstanding in the Basin, now that these new agreements are in place?
A: So the money for the deal that spares farmers from paying for fish recovery -- that will still have to go through Congress. And there are still some big land and water issues that still have to be worked out.
The farmers want to negotiate a water-sharing arrangement with the Klamath Tribes in Oregon. In addition, the concrete thing the Klamath tribes were supposed to get out of the initial agreements was a substantial piece of land from the federal government, that their members could use for economic development. The parcel they had identified was sold while everyone was waiting for Congress to act on the original deals. Now a new piece of land has to be found, the money and the terms to buy it secured.